Music of Ireland Persists Through Songs of the Makems

NO, it's not Tommy Makem and the Clancy Brothers strumming and singing in the Unitarian Church in this New Hampshire seaport. It's Makem's sons - Rory, Conor, and Shane - and partner Brian Sullivan.

The Makem Brothers and Brian Sullivan, all in their 20s, are the new kids on the Irish music block. The brothers, who are all from New Hampshire, say they are carrying on the family tradition.

Critics have compared the group to 1960s college-crowd folkies The Kingston Trio. And why not? The '60s are in again, with coffeehouses, poetry readings, and folk music making a big comeback. The group's icons include folk heavies Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger.

``They're in the right place at the right time,'' their father Tommy Makem says. He got his start when he and Joan Baez electrified audiences at the 1961 Newport Folk Festival.

``There is a revival,'' Mr. Makem says in an interview. ``But then, folk music has never been out of fashion. It's been there all along. It takes a swerve upwards now and then, and it's taking a swerve upwards now.''

These days, female singers like Mary Chapin Carpenter are grabbing a lot of attention. ``But there's no one doing what the boys are doing,'' the elder Makem says.

Shane says he was working as a housepainter and delivering pizza when he got the calling for his music career.

Rory, munching a turkey sandwich in a Portsmouth pub, says, ``I can't see myself in a suit.''

Lead guitarist Sullivan, who played with the three in several doomed attempts at rock bands in high school, joined the Makems two years ago, also escaping a career in the food business.

``It was a fateful day in August. I was flipping burgers at the Lone Oak Diner in Rochester, New Hampshire,'' when he got a call from Rory, Sullivan says.

But separating their talent from their father's isn't easy. ``A lot of people don't like us. They think we're just punky kids capitalizing on our father's name,'' Rory says.

Admittedly, the senior Makem helped them get their first gigs, at his Irish Pavilion club in New York City. These included some choice appearances, including one at Bob Dylan's 30th anniversary show at Madison Square Garden. But, says the veteran singer, ``I think once people hear them, they know they're their own men.''

They do their share of traditional Celtic songs, some passed down from their grandmother Sarah Makem, who memorized thousands of tunes from spinners and weavers working in the linen mills of her native Keady, County Armagh - songs that helped catapult Tommy Makem to fame with the Clancy Brothers.

But the Makem Brothers and Sullivan put themselves more in the ``Celtic rock'' wave of the Bothy Band and others.

Sullivan draws applause when he veers off into rock and country riffs absorbed from his heroes - Hank Williams, Rolling Stone Keith Richards, and Brian May of Queen.

``The purists hate us,'' Rory says.

But it's likely that in Ireland itself, where country-western is the latest rage, they might be a hit, says Portsmouth bluesman Bob Halperin, who took a recent trip to Dublin.

If they're iconoclasts when it comes to Irish music, they admit that fans of Pearl Jam or Nirvana might stay away.

``A lot of people probably think we're old-fashioned. So many people our age don't know enough about the past, their own heritage or ours,'' Rory says. ``A lot of people we play for think folk music is Peter, Paul and Mary or anybody with a guitar.''

``We're the four squarest guys on the planet,'' Brian says, confessing, ``I still want to be on the cover of People Magazine or Rolling Stone. Who wouldn't?''

The group released its first 12-song CD and cassette, ``Out Standing in a Field,'' three weeks ago and is currently touring the West and Midwest.

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